Paul Wells: Europe's breaking point

Targeted by terror and overcome by waves of refugees—a grand experiment is stumbling. A special report by political editor Paul Wells

Daily Life In Brussels After Terror Attacks. Police confront residents of the Muslim district Molenbeek after a police investigation sparked anger between residents and police. Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux

Daily life in Brussels after terror attacks: Police confront residents of the Muslim district Molenbeek after a police investigation sparked anger between residents and police. (Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux)

As the list of deadly attacks grows longer, Europe’s great cities have had to improvise an iconography of grief and wariness. A visitor arriving in Brussels last week, days after bombs at the airport and in the metro killed 32 people, was struck not so much by fear as by déjà vu. It was so much like Paris after the Charlie Hebdo murders. These things have a shape and a rhythm to them now.

At the Bourse, the Belgian capital’s stately old stock exchange, crowds of tourists were still laying flowers and hanging banners. Chalk inscriptions on sidewalks and on the building itself bore messages of hope or sadness or helpless banality. “Just smile,” said one. “It will make them angry.” “Diversity is Brussels and they won’t take it away from us,” said another.

The subways were running for only 12 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., under heavy security. As a train on the main line sped through Maelbeek station without stopping, floor-to-ceiling screens hid any view of the platforms. It was at Maelbeek that 14 people died in the second attack of March 22, an hour and 13 minutes after the bombs at the airport detonated.

There were soldiers everywhere, usually working in pairs and carrying assault rifles. I passed two Belgian army regulars as I entered the Canadian Embassy on a cold spring afternoon, and it wasn’t until later that I learned they were stationed there well before the latest attacks.

“They’ve been there since the Thalys incident,” Dan Costello, Canada’s ambassador to the European Union, told me. “Oh, no—since the Verviers Ring was taken apart.”

It can be hard to keep up with the mayhem. Let’s recap. The Thalys is a high-speed rail network that serves Brussels. On Aug. 21, 2015, a 25-year-old Moroccan, Ayoub El-Khazzani, was arrested after a man boarded the train at Brussels and began shooting and stabbing its occupants, none fatally. Four passengers, including two off-duty members of the U.S. armed forces, overpowered the assailant.

Seven months earlier, on Jan. 15, 2015, Belgian police killed two men in a series of raids on houses in Verviers, in eastern Belgium, and across Brussels. The Verviers raids came eight days after gunmen in Paris killed 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Police said the suspects in the raids were connected to the so-called Islamic State terror cult and that they were on the verge of planning new attacks. Investigators later said the Verviers group’s ringleader, relaying orders by telephone from Athens, was Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Abaaoud remained free long enough to help organize the massive coordinated terror attack on Paris restaurants, bars and the city’s main sports stadium on Nov. 11. He died in a bloody police raid in a Paris suburb a week later.

Investigators believe the driver for the November Paris attacks was Salah Abdeslam, born in 1989 in Brussels to Moroccan parents. He escaped the dragnet around Paris last autumn. Police finally caught him in Molenbeek, an inner-city Brussels neighbourhood that is home to many Moroccan and Turkish immigrants. A manhunt across two countries ended on March 18 when police, alerted by a suspiciously large pizza order, raided Abdeslam’s Molenbeek flat. His capture probably spurred his associates to carry out the Brussels airport and metro bombings four days later.

The Verviers and Thalys incidents weren’t even the beginning of Belgium’s modern experience with Islamist terror, Costello reminded me. In May 2014, a gunman shot four people to death at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Mehdi Nemmouche, an associate of the men who would later carry out the November 2015 Paris attacks, was arrested after the museum attack.

So just by playing connect-the-dots, in a few minutes, we had drawn links among six terror attacks in two countries that had killed more than 170 people in less than two years. No wonder there were soldiers on the sidewalk. “I keep telling friends, this is not the Europe of our backpacking days,” Costello said. “This is a new normal.”

Daily Life In Brussels After Terror Attacks. Police confront residents of the Muslim district Molenbeek after a police investigation sparked anger between residents and police. A woman was injured when she was hit by a car when the driver tried to break through a police barricade. The driver turned the corner, hitting the woman. Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux

Daily Life In Brussels After Terror Attacks. Police confront residents of the Muslim district Molenbeek after a police investigation sparked anger between residents and police. A woman was injured when she was hit by a car when the driver tried to break through a police barricade. The driver turned the corner, hitting the woman. Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux

It would be astonishing if there were not more bloodshed soon. The New York Times reported last week that ISIS has been operating a separate external-operations wing for two years whose plan was to carry out attacks of growing complexity and violence, in Europe, Turkey, and wherever Westerners gather around the world. At least 21 terrorists trained in Syria and returned to Europe, French intelligence sources told the Times. “It’s a factory over there,” in Syria, the Times quoted one arrested terror suspect, Reda Hame, a Parisian computer technician who trained in Syria with Abdelhamid Abaaoud. “They are doing everything possible to strike France, or else Europe.”

As you hand a shopping bag to be searched by a soldier toting an automatic rifle and wearing a scarf over half his face, wondering when or whether it will all end, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Europe is under siege. And it’s not as though the old continent didn’t have anything else to worry about. More than a million asylum seekers poured into Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding region in 2015. Early indications are that, despite increasingly frantic efforts by the European Union to discourage the exodus, more will come in 2016.

Most of the newcomers are on the move precisely because they fear and loathe the destruction ISIS has caused as much as Westerners do. But many in Europe are disinclined to draw fine distinctions: the continent’s ability to absorb the newcomers is under unprecedented assault, just as ISIS steps up its efforts to export the slaughter. A generally morose continental economy adds to the stress. In France, the United Kingdom and Germany, euroskeptic parties that tap into the mounting frustration have been gaining in the polls.

On its eastern border, Europe faces more pressure from Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. He has effectively annexed parts of Ukraine and Georgia. His air force routinely runs fake bombing raids whose flight paths seem to suggest they are rehearsals for nuclear attacks against Sweden, Estonia and other countries. And the Russian air force is pursuing inscrutable ends in Syria. Far from targeting ISIS in Syria, Russia has done a “great deal to bolster” the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander of Europe, told the House armed services committee in Washington on Feb. 25.

Instead of containing or limiting the threat from ISIS, Russia has “wildly exacerbated the problem,” Breedlove said. Then NATO’s top soldier in Europe pushed his analysis one wild step further: “Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration from Syria,” he said, “in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve,” he said.

It is an extraordinary charge: that Putin is deliberately increasing the chaos in Syria to drive waves of refugees northward to break Europe. Over breakfast at a café in Brussels, I put Breedlove’s analysis to James Appathurai, the most senior Canadian in NATO’s civilian apparatus.

“Let’s put it this way,” Appathurai, a Torontonian who has been at NATO for 18 years, said. “I think there are many people who would say that Putin is not necessarily interested in a strong, unified EU. And so if this has an effect of sort of confusing and weakening the European Union, or dividing it, well, that might be well in what Russia perceives to be its interest.

“What I have seen is, clearly, Russia’s military activities in Syria have not been, even in the majority, directed against the Islamic State.”

Related: The definition of ‘refugee’ narrows

So this is Europe in 2016: deliberately targeted by teams of fanatic mass murderers. Certain there will be more such attacks. Scrambling to accommodate waves of refugees. Wearied by a crisis of faith in a continent-wide experiment, the European Union, whose principles of open markets and open borders are contested by populist parties in every major European democracy. And prodded from the east and perhaps the south by Putin, whose nostalgia for the old Soviet Union is matched only by his inventiveness in coming up with new ways to torment Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with French Senate President Gerard Larcher (not pictured) in the Kremlin on April 5, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Larcher is on a visit for bilateral meetings with Russian leaders. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with French Senate President Gerard Larcher (not pictured) in the Kremlin on April 5, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Larcher is on a visit for bilateral meetings with Russian leaders. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

I asked Appathurai whether the EU can stand the strain. It’s a touchy question. He emphasized that on this question, he wasn’t talking in any formal capacity as a NATO spokesman but simply as a long-time resident of Brussels. “What I hear everyone saying, except for hard-core europhiles, is average people say maybe we need to give open borders a break.” In public opinion polls in a handful of countries, majorities favour limits on the so-called Schengen Agreement, which allows anyone to travel anywhere within continental Europe without stopping at border crossings. “So, Schengen, it was nice, maybe one day again, but now we need to control our borders.”

The second effect Appathurai described is the rise of all those far-right parties: France’s National Front, the UK Independence Party, the Alternative for Germany, and so on. Basically all of those parties favour freezes on immigration, national control over borders, and a slam on the brakes of the EU’s 50-year project of ever-closer integration among member states. In an unlucky coincidence, a series of votes over the next year will give voters a series of chances to cast judgment on the EU’s fate.

The first big test will be on June 23, when the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EU. The vote was Prime Minister David Cameron’s brainchild, a re-election campaign commitment in 2015. He is campaigning for a No vote that would keep Britain in the EU. But his Conservative party is divided on the question, and recent polls make it far from clear which side will win. A victory for the anti-EU forces would cripple Cameron’s career and boost the fortunes of Nigel Farage and his anti-immigration UKIP.

Next up will be national elections in Germany and France in 2017. France’s Socialist president, François Hollande, is a dithering nonentity who tried his best to step up to the challenge of statecraft after the Paris terror attacks of January and November last year. But he falls consistently behind Marine Le Pen of the National Front in most presidential election polls, which means that in a three-way race against Le Pen and a centre-right candidate, he wouldn’t even make it to the second round of voting for his own re-election.

French President Francois Hollande (R) welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) prior a meeting with Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (unseen) during an European Union leaders summit over migration in Brussels, Belgium, March 17, 2016. Stephane de Sakutin/Reuters

French President Francois Hollande welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel prior a meeting with Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (unseen) during an European Union leaders summit over migration in Brussels, Belgium, March 17, 2016. (Stephane de Sakutin/Reuters)

In Germany it is hard to imagine national politics without Angela Merkel. She hasn’t yet announced whether she will seek a fourth term as chancellor next year. But her electoral support has grown shaky. She is closely identified with her government’s generous attitude toward welcoming migrants. Her reputation was badly hurt by a string of New Year’s Eve sexual attacks against women in Cologne. Police said the 58 men who were arrested were mostly of Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian descent, although only three were recent immigrants. Whether she runs again or not, the 2017 German election seems sure to be a referendum on Merkel’s policies.

Squat and boring, Brussels is a perfect petri dish for all of these pathologies. I have visited the city often over the years, never for longer than necessary. As Belgium’s capital it expresses, in a hundred ways, the uneasy alliance of mutual suspicion between residents of the country’s two largest communities, the French-speaking Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Belgian governments are notoriously delicate things, rickety alliances of conflicting personalities from many wee regional parties. In 2010 and 2011 the country went 589 days with no national government at all. Every few weeks somebody would visit the King with some harebrained scheme and be sent back to the drawing board. Nobody paid the extended crisis any particular mind. It is illegal for the police to raid anyone’s house between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., more or less because each language community has always been sure the other side would invade their houses. The massive office buildings of the EU have, in stages over the last half-century, simply been plopped down onto central Brussels. Much of it was built by waves of immigrant labour from the Mediterranean—Italians at first, then Moroccans and Turks.

They all live together in zones and layers of mutual incomprehension. The rules and fractured jurisdictions certainly slowed down police as they attempted to find the Paris attackers in Brussels.

Late last year, Belgium’s justice minister said Salah Abdeslam escaped a police raid in Brussels two days after the November Paris massacres because of the archaic night-raid ban. Police were sure they had Abdeslam when they knocked off for the night, but when they returned the next morning, he was gone.

The eventual arrest of Abdeslam didn’t help police foil the attacks by his accomplices four days later. Two cabinet ministers offered their resignations over the mess. Charles Michel, who has managed to hang on as prime minister for almost 18 months, rejected the resignations. Tim King, a British journalist who wrote a widely read article last year calling Belgium a “failed state,” told me that nobody may resign from a Belgian government because the layers of faction make it almost impossible to replace anyone. “If somebody resigns, it just messes up the whole maths of the federal government.”

After the March 22 attacks, American television news cameras descended on Molenbeek, where Abdeslam was arrested, and depicted it as a den of Islamist fundamentalism where outsiders tread in fear. In fact it’s a mostly unremarkable working-class neighbourhood, densely populated, notoriously prone to petty crime. The largest building near the main square is a police station. Molenbeek is, in fact, more like the rest of Brussels than unlike it: everybody minds their own business. “You don’t squeal on the neighbours,” King told me. “You keep yourself to yourself.”

Daily Life In Brussels After Terror Attacks. Customers are returning to bars, restaurants and cafes in Brussels. Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux

Customers are returning to bars, restaurants and cafes in Brussels. (Photograph by Timothy Fadek/Redux)

The Belgian police need to get their act together. The EU needs to improve its intelligence-gathering. But the kind of pop sociology that would pin blame for the Brussels attacks on Belgian federalism misses an important point, which is that ISIS and its lone-wolf disciples have struck in a growing number of very different countries: France, whose police have taken Islamist terrorism seriously for 30 years. Tunisia. Turkey. The United States, where neither border controls beyond the wildest dreams of euroskeptic parties nor all the wiles of the FBI could stop Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a U.S. citizen and a permanent resident, from killing 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., before police shot them dead last December.

Arnaud Danjean is a fast-rising young centre-right French politician, a member of the European Parliament who was on a metro train that rode through Maelbeek station only a few minutes before the bomb on another train exploded on March 22. In an interview, he politely refused an invitation to be introspective about his near miss, pointing out that dozens of others were not so fortunate. Before he was a politician he was a member of France’s security services, with stints in the Balkans and Afghanistan to his credit.

He told me Belgium suffers from “a less than optimal functioning” of its security apparatus, pausing to chuckle at his own understatement. “But I don’t want to condemn Belgium, because no European state has a system that’s infallible. Take France’s case. It seems to me that France doesn’t do enough self-criticism. France has too quickly blamed Belgium, and there’s something to that, but France can’t spare itself some self-examination.”

I thought Danjean might be arguing, as I have in the past, that entire communities of long-term immigrants are shut out of the mainstream culture and economy of many countries, France certainly included. He wasn’t buying the argument. His answer made me reconsider. “I don’t think you should exaggerate the social character of this phenomenon. In France, among radicalized people, we find that 40 per cent are converts. So that relativizes the social approach, if you will.”

It sure does. Why do people with a stake in European civil society convert, in many cases not to any mainstream Islam but to the desolate and murderous strain of Wahhabism advertised by ISIS? Conversely, why do the vast majority of Muslims in the Paris banlieues and in Molenbeek continue to lead peaceable lives?

Related: After Paris comes the new war on terror

The best answer I have seen lately comes from Olivier Roy, a French political scientist. After 2015’s second massacre in Paris he published an article in Le Monde arguing that Islamist terror “is the only thing on the market of radical rebellion.” Earlier generations killed for anarchy, or Communism. “The rallying cry of these youth is opportunistic,” Roy wrote. “Today it is the Islamic State; yesterday, they were with al-Qaeda; before that, in 1995, they were subcontractors for the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, or they practiced the nomadism of personal jihad, from Bosnia to Afghanistan, by way of Chechnya. Tomorrow they will fight under another banner, so long as combat death, age, or disillusion do not empty their ranks.”

The great thing about ISIS, besides its licence to kill, is its very limited homework requirement, Roy wrote. The young fighters who move to Syria are under no obligation to meet the neighbours, learn any history, or do anything but train to perpetuate the jihad. “In Syria, they only fight war; none integrate or interest themselves in civil society. And if they take sexual slaves or recruit young women on the Internet to become the wives of future martyrs, it’s because they are in no way socially integrated in the Muslim societies that they claim to defend.”

“This is not, then, the radicalization of Islam,” Roy wrote, “but the Islamization of radicalism.”

Two men in the Molenbeek district, a neglected inner-city area of Brussels in economic decline, Jan. 25, 2015. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Two men in the Molenbeek district, a neglected inner-city area of Brussels in economic decline, Jan. 25, 2015. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

All of which suggests, to me, that the long-term solution to the urban terror of ISIS is not to shut down borders, banish newcomers, bulk up the surveillance state and out-tough the murderers. Certainly there is a market for that prescription. On a Monday night several days after the Brussels bombings, a gang of thick-necked soccer hooligans descended on the square in front of the Bourse, tearing down peacenik banners and picking fights with passersby who seemed, in the eye of the roving strongmen, excessively eager to make nice with Islamists. The police finally saw the counterprotesters off with water cannon. There will be plenty of politicians offering the marchers their brand of tough medicine in the next election, in Belgium and across Europe. There have been for decades.

But if Islamism is vying for the attention and affection of distracted and dissolute kids, whether second-generation rebel sons of moderate Muslims or slapdash converts from Christianity or atheism, then it is not in the West’s long-term interest to try to out-tough the killers. Rather it is to sap the appeal of terror and murder by ensuring, consistently over the long term, that another way of life really does look better.

On that score, I daresay that Europe, for all its strains and its frequent inanity, is doing well. On a bad day you could almost sell the notion that EU and ISIS are funhouse-mirror images of each other: polyglot, border-skipping multinational operations that operate in defiance of history, logic or human nature. But the comparison flatters ISIS and cheats Europe. The foreign fighters who have streamed to Raqqa to join the jihad have as often recoiled in horror as they have been embraced as useful recruits. The murders of innocent dozens in Paris, including Muslims, have badly undercut the appeal of ISIS in the French-speaking world. Cédric Mas, a French analyst, has pointed out that the latest issue of Dar al-Islam, the French-language ISIS propaganda magazine, devotes an unprecedented amount of space to defensive arguments for its terror attacks in Europe—and contains no long-term forecasts about the organization’s future. It is as if, at the moment of its apparent triumph, ISIS has found itself thrown on the back foot among its own clientele.

Europe, meanwhile, is Europe, revelling in its history and culture, refining its admittedly clumsy policing, learning from error. And not incidentally, living as a rich, compelling community—richer in many places, in important ways, than Brussels.

Related: Europe’s crisis of competence boils over

On Monday at a conference organized by the European Policy Centre think tank, Thomas Fabian, the deputy mayor of Leipzig, described the policies his German city of 500,000 people has adopted to integrate the more than 5,000 migrants who moved there last year. The newcomers are distributed throughout the city, including in affluent neighbourhoods, instead of being left in ghettos, Fabian said. The newcomers are obliged to take German lessons. Each family is assigned a city social worker to check in now and again, but for the most part newcomers are encouraged to leave their homes to visit doctors and other services, to strengthen their personal responsibility and self-reliance. The goal of it all, Fabian said, is to make sure the newcomers join Leipzig’s broader community, a community whose residents, 300 years ago, included Johann Sebastian Bach.

This is a better way to act. It is more fulfilling and will, over time, be more attractive. By coincidence I arrived in Brussels on the same Thalys train route, from Amsterdam through Brussels to Paris, on which three vacationing Americans subdued Ayoub El-Khazzani eight months ago. No guard rifled through my bag as I boarded, and the train did not stop at the border between the Netherlands and Belgium.

In my car was an American family. The mother read aloud to her three sons from a Harry Potter book for the duration of the two-hour trip. A society where family, community, technology and security can co-exist that well—most of the time, never perfectly—is stronger than it looks. Stronger than it has been made to feel this year. In the long-term battle between Europe and its assorted tormenters, keep betting on Europe.

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